The Interim Normal


This is basically how I imagine a lot of CEO workspaces look at the moment.

For the past nineteen years my wife Anne and I have maintained firm boundaries between work and home. Home is our refuge from work, our earthly reward for jobs properly done, our container of collections and comfort, and our humble haven for our hearts. Work is an intrusion we’ve allowed inside only in extremely rare circumstances.

In this new era, our ongoing worldwide catastrophe, effective this week the line between work and home is one of many luxuries we’re no longer afforded.

Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover, I wrote briefly of our experiences in the early days of the Coronavirus’ American invasion, of the subtle cosmic foreshadowing I overlooked in the book of my life, and of how I prefer “Coronavirus” over its seventy-six other hotly debated names because I dig how it sounds like an old-fashioned sci-fi weapon from some distant creepy galaxy:

…whenever we think we’ve settled down and the tension has eased as we’ve adapted to each change thrown at us, some knowledgeable authority or some know-nothing internet crank picks up a megaphone and bellows in our ears like William Dozier on ye olde Batman TV show, “THE WORST IS YET TO COME!”

The story is far from over — more so in other countries disproportionately hit by the Coronavirus disease. I’d rather not imagine what a “Chapter 2” for this post would look like. I have other things I’d much rather write about, but I’m skeptical as to whether anyone would take a break from refreshing their Coronavirus phone updates to glance at anything else. Frankly, I know the feeling.

We knew the saga would continue. We simply had to wait until the next chapters arrived for us to live them.

The previous entry was written the night of March 11th. The days since then have continued to see tensions ratcheted up, new chaos wreaked, and baser instincts triumph over wisdom and self-restraint. And that was just at our local groceries, where millions of customers are confusing “social distancing” with “nuclear winter”, buying months’ worth of food per trip and overstocking their basement shelves in the event that the virus evolves large enough to form street gangs or drive Red Dawn tanks up Capitol Hill.

Meijer meatless!

The meat section at our nearby Meijer last Friday night, and probably every night since. Humanity’s lust for fresh animal flesh is at an all-time high.

Anne spent Friday testing her work equipment at home on orders from her superiors. She brought home a bare-bones equipment setup, took over the kitchen table for eight hours, and ironed out a few bugs with I.T. assistance. Then she ventured forth to Meijer and submerged into madness, armed with only a grocery list of average length for our family of three. Some departments were more thoroughly looted than others. Meats were wiped out. Cheap breads were in short supply, which is fine because we’re privileged Pepperidge Farms fans. She encountered no resistance in gathering some of our other staples — fat-free milk, whole-grain pasta, non-potato produce in general. She waited forty minutes in one of several checkout lines and killed time by striking up friendly conversation with a restaurant owner concerned about his livelihood. This was before our governor shut down all restaurant dining rooms a few days later.

Anne has made two more trips to other groceries since Meijer, partly to obtain the items they lacked and partly because now we feel like we have to maintain a certain pantry sufficiency level in case broad legislation outlaws the outdoors altogether. That’s not how we normally do grocery shopping, let alone how we should be doing it under quote-unquote quarantine. But she’s careful, takes no stupid chances, follows the rules, and stays apart from competing buyers. She practices what I like to call the Loneliness of the Social Distance Runner.

That’s just the state of grocery warfare today. All the businesses with our email addresses on record have divided into two tribes: (a) closed due to “abundance of caution” or (b) open while “monitoring the situation” and undergoing “enhanced cleaning”, which for some places probably means “overdue cleaning”. All our theaters have shut down. Our motivation to try new restaurants has been mortally deincentivized. It was nice of Yankee Candle and IKEA to think of me in this time of tribulation, but I’ll be okay with their hiatuses.

My local comic shop is still open and offering alternative services for us weekly customers — pre-ordering through the ComicHub app, curbside pickup for anyone who’d rather swerve near and not actually enter the store, and quick, medically standoffish takeout for walk-ups. They’re also offering mail-order, which will be my next step if any legislative hammers fall on “nonessential” non-restaurants here in Indy, assuming our post offices remain open and no one has to start fearing postal carriers as potential plague bearers.

And then there’s work.

Parking Garage!

My employers’ parking garage, every day and every hour this week.

In my fairly large company, very nearly anyone who’s been granted the tech to work from home has been hereby ordered to work from home. My division is set apart a bit and has sent a large percentage of employees home. Some of us are needed onsite for as long as possible because there are clients who will most assuredly need our services in the weeks and months ahead. I’m among the “essential” staff still showing up in person. Much of what I do requires hands-on activity, and my skill sets are far more useful to the company in person than from afar. I can work from home if absolutely necessary, and I’ve done so a few times in years past, albeit at a drastically reduced capacity. We living bodies are unanimously being extremely careful. Precautions are being taken on all conceivable levels. Numerous potential points of contamination have been shuttered. We’re avoiding physical contact with utmost seriousness. Occasionally there’s an ironic expression here and there. We follow the rules nevertheless.

gas station!

Admittedly the premium parking has been a nice perk, not to mention the ludicrous gas prices. Thursday night I paid $13.65 for 7½ gallons. What a country.

Anne’s company, on the other hand, has consigned everyone to work-from-home. That Friday home test was indeed the harbinger we suspected it might be. We spent Tuesday night rearranging our library, combining stacks into larger stacks and tossing stray comic boxes against the far wall so we could make more room on, around, and under the card table in the middle of the room that’s usually reserved for finished reading piles, board games we forgot to put back in the closet, and/or Anne’s scrapbooks in progress. As showcased in our lead photo, now it’s a workspace, surrounded by bookshelves on three sides and my comics on the fourth.

That boundary between work and home has been officially erased, hopefully to be redrawn eventually. She’s made it through the first two days, trooper that she is. If the crisis intensifies, my own employer has reserved the right to enact the same contingency plan with me. Monotonous isolation isn’t ideal, but it is gainful employment.

As she puts it, “This is my life now: working, sleeping, and standing in grocery store lines.”

Work days are even more emotionally oppressive when everything you were looking forward to, the recreational bright spots that make the often unbearable “now” worth enduring with a smile, keep getting wiped off the calendar one by one. The convention we were considering doing on my birthday weekend in May is a risky prospect. A June event we’ve attended several times was officially canceled today. Beyond that, only God knows. As of today Cincinnati Comic Expo was still adding new guests to their September show, keeping hope alive in the face of so much dimming.

In the meantime, we’re otherwise hoping to stay put and occupying our time with mass media. I helped Anne check out a heavy stack of books before the Indianapolis public library system shut down for at least the next few weeks. As for me, I have enough unwatched material to hold me for months; unread books, for years. In fact, last night I finally completed my years-long journey through Homicide: Life on the Street — all seven seasons and the movie. Sometimes I convince myself watching stuff in my leisure time counts as a form of productivity.

If I need more distractions from the outside world and its increasingly starker headlines, there’s always writing. People want and need distractions now more than ever, though not necessarily from my nearly 8-year back catalog. Site traffic had already cratered even before internet civilization collectively stopped Googling anything unrelated to “Coronavirus” or politics. And it’s tough to compete online with celebrities now entertaining everyone for free — recording themselves singing, reading books, or emerging from their six-bedroom palaces to perform from balconies. Their good works are much appreciated, professionally conducted in many cases, and dwarfing any creative contributions from down here in the Peanut Gallery.

Regardless, if need be, there’s the notion of writing for myself as a self-care option of sorts — a distraction, a catharsis, a means of connecting with others in a non-physical medium regardless of head count. I’m not out of stories to tell, memories to share, or weird geek opinions to voice just yet. It’s something.

library books!

Food wasn’t the only item on Anne’s temporary-doomsday prep list.

Obviously things could be worse. We’re aging grownups. We know this. Tonight I learned one of my old Usenet cohorts has tested positive for the virus. She’s stable for now and dutifully going full hermit. She may not be the last person I know to join the worst club of the year.

Some folks call all this “the new normal”, which implies this is life from now on, the end of human contact as we transition into permanently living in compartments like no-range poultry or the WorryFree employees from Sorry to Bother You. I prefer “the interim normal”. I had to coin a new term because it wasn’t doing me any good to keep mumbling to myself “this too shall pass this too shall pass this too shall pass” like a failed wizard.

We miss the blissful complacency a few billions of us used to share without thinking much about it, but this is what we do for now, until and unless, having faith that all of this is interim, not an entrenched status quo.

We continue fulfilling our responsibilities to others, we make the most of our free time within our rewritten boundaries, and we follow the rules. Wash frequently. Shun bodies. Pray the virus doesn’t learn how to use guns.

One response

  1. It feels redundant & profoundly unnecessary to say this, but, given the circumstances I just gotta tippy-type this out on my phone w/my hands encased in SensiCare Ice ® with SmartGuard™ powder-free nitrile exam gloves:

    What a beautiful piece of writing! Thank you for sharing it w/the world! I appreciate it!


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